The Legendary Hero of Hampton: General Jonathan Moulton
from "Little Stories of Old New England"
By William D. Cram
Hampton Union & Rockingham County Gazette, February 17, 1938
The legendary hero of Hampton is General Jonathan Moulton. He is no ficticious [sic] personage, but is one of veritable flesh and blood, who, having acquired considerable celebrity in the old wars, lives on through the medium of a local legend.
The General, says the legend, encountered a far more notable adversary than Abenaki warriors or conjurors, among whom he had lived, and whom it was the passion of his life to exterminate.
In an evil hour his yearning to amass wealth suddenly lead him to declare that he would sell his soul for the possession of uncounted riches. Think of the devil, and he is at your elbow. The fatal declaration was no sooner made - the General was sitting alone by his fireside - than a shower of sparks came down the chimney out of which stepped a man dressed from top to toe in black velvet. The astonished Moulton noticed that the stranger's riffles were not even smutted.
"Your servant, General!" quoth the stranger, suavely. "But let us make haste, if you please, for I am expected at the Governor's in a quarter of an hour," he added, picking up a live coal with his thumb and forefinger, and consulting his watch with it.
The General's wits began to desert him. Portsmouth was five leagues - long ones at that - from Hampton House, and his stranger visitor talked, with the utmost unconcern of getting there in fifteen minutes. His Astonishment caused him to stammer out:
"Then you must be the - "
"Tush, what signifies a name?" interrupted the stranger, with a deprecating wave of the hand.
"Come, do we understand each other? Is it a bargain or not?"
At the talismanic word "bargain" the General pricked up his ears. He had often been heard to say that neither man nor devil could get the better of him in trade. He took out his jackknife and began to whittle. The devil took out his, and began to pare his nails.
"What proof have I that you can perform what you promise?" demanded Moulton, pursing up his mouth and contracting his bushy eyebrows, like a man who is not to be taken in by mere appearances.
The fiend ran his fingers carelessly through his peruke, when a shower of gold guineas fell to the floor and rolled to the four corners of the room. The General quickly stooped to pick one up; but no sooner had his fingers closed upon it, than he dropped it with a yell. It was red hot! The devil chuckled; "Try again," he said. But Moulton shook his head and retreated a step.
"Don't be afraid." Moulton cautiously touched a coin; it was cool. He weighed it in his hand, and rung it on the table; it was full weight and full ring. Then he went down on his knees and began to gather up the guineas with feverish haste. "Are you satisfied?" demanded Satan.
"Completely, your majesty."
"Then to business. By the way do you have anything to drink in this house?"
"There is some old Jamaica in the cupboard."
"Excellent! I am as thirsty as a Puritan on election day," said the devil, seating himself at the table, and negligently swinging his mantle back over his shoulder so as to show the jeweled flap of his doublet.
Moulton brought a decanter and a couple of glasses from the cupboard, filling one and passing it to his infernal guest, who tasted it, and smacked his lips with the air of a connoisseur. Moulton watched every gesture. "Do your Excellency not find it to your taste?" he ventured to ask, having the secret idea that he might get the devil drunk and so outwit him.
"H'm, I have drunk worse. But let me show you how to make a salamander,: replied Satan, touching the lighted end of the taper to the liquid, which instantly burst into a spectral blue flame. The fiend then raised the tankard to the height of his eye, glanced approvingly at the blasé - which to Moulton's disordered intellect resembled an adder's forked and agile tongue - nodded, and said patronizingly, "to our better acquaintance!" He then quaffed the contents at a single gulp.
Moulton shuddered; this was not the way he had been used to seeing healths drunk. He pretended, however, to drink, for fear of giving offence; but somehow the liquor choked him. The demon set down the tankard, and observed in a matter of fact way that put his listener in a cold sweat. "Now that you are convinced that I am able to make the richest man in all province listen! Have I your ear? It is well! In consideration of your agreement, duly signed and sealed to deliver your soul" - here he drew a parchment from his breast - "I engage, on my part, on the first day of every month, to fill your boot with golden elephants, like these before you. But mark me well," said Satan, holding up a forefinger glittering with diamonds. "If you try to play me any trick, you will repent it! I know you, Jonathan Moulton, and shall keep my eye upon you; so beware!"
Moulton flinched a little at this plain speech, but thought seemed to strike him, and he brightened up. Satan opened the scroll, smoothed out the creases, dipped a pen in the ink horn at his girdle, and pointing to a blank space said, laconically, "Sign!"
"If you are afraid," sneered Satan, "why put me to all this trouble?" and began to put the gold in his pocket.
His victim seized the pen; but his hand shook so that he could not write. He gulped down a mouthful of rum, stole a look at his infernal guest, who nodded his head by the way of encouragement, and a second time approached this pen to the paper. The struggle was soon over. The unhappy Moulton wrote his name at the bottom of the list, where he was astonished to see some of the highest personages in the province. "I shall at least be in good company," he muttered.
"Good!" said Satan, raising and putting the scroll securely away within his chest. "Rely on me, General, and be sure to keep your faith. Remember!" so saying, the demon raised his hand, flung his mantle above him, and vanished up the chimney.
Satan performed his part of the letter. On the first day of every month, the boots, which were hung on the crane in the fireplace the night before, were found in the morning to be stuffed full of guineas. It is true that Moulton had ransacked the village for the largest pair to be found, and had finally secured a brace of trooper's jackboots, which came nearly up to the wearer's thigh; but the contract merely expressed boots, and the devil did not stand upon trifles.
Moulton rolled in wealth; everything prospered. His neighbors regarded first with envy then with aversion and at last with fear. Not a few affirmed that he had entered into a league with the evil one. Others shook their heads saying, "What does it signify? - that man would outwit the devil himself."
But one morning, when the fiend came as usual to fill the boots, what was his astonishment to find that could not fill them. He poured in the guineas but it was like pouring water into a rathole. The more he put in the more the quantity seemed to diminish. In vain he persisted; the boots not be filled.
The devil scratched his ear. "I must look into this," he reflected. No sooner said, then he attempted to descend; but in doing so he found his progress suddenly stopped. A good reason. The chimney was choked up with guineas! Foaming with rage, the demon tore the boots from the crane. The crafty General had cut off the soles, leaving only the legs for the devil to fill. The chamber was knee deep with gold.
The devil gave a horrible grin, and disappeared. The same night Hampton House was burned to the ground, the General only escaping with his shirt. He had been dreaming he was dead and in hell. The precious guineas were secreted in the wainscot, the ceiling, and other hiding places only known to himself. He blasphemed, wept, and tore his hair. Suddenly he grew calm. After all, the loss was not irreparable, he reflected. Gold would melt it was true, but he would find it all - of course he would - at daybreak, run into a solid lump in the cellar - every guinea. That is true of ordinary gold.
The General worked with the energy of despair, clearing away the rubbish. He refused all offers of assistance; he dared not accept them. But the gold had vanished. Whether it was really consumed, or had passed into the massy entrails of the earth, will never be known. It was only certain that every vestige of it disappeared.
When the General died and was buried, strange rumors began to be circulated. To quiet them, the grave was opened; but when the lid was removed from the coffin it was found to be empty.